By KEVIN NELSON
—Autograph April 2009
As soon as they filled their first order—no, before that: when Wayne Bray first set eyes on Greg Marino’s perfect Mickey Mantle forgery—Wayne realized that if they were going to take this thing big-time, they needed to do more names than just Mantle. “If you can do Mantle,” he told Greg, “you can do DiMaggio.”
There are three baseball autographs every serious collector has to have: Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, known in the trade as the Big Three. Greg had emotional ties to his Mantle, but his motive for learning DiMaggio was pure commerce. He agreed with Wayne that if he learned him and got him right, they’d make more money, lots more money.
“Some people said you could never do DiMaggio,” Marino recalled. “His signature was too perfect, always consistent. The big thing on Joe’s name was learning the J. That was the most important. He was very consistent in the way he signed his J. Both the J and the D had to be consistent, and the D had to be at a certain angle. It was easy to mess up the D.”
Even though most of the people who saw these autographs wouldn’t know the difference between DiMaggio’s J and Jersey Joe Walcott’s, Wayne knew how Joe D. did it, and he felt strongly this was the way it should be done. Doing quality work, he believed, would give them an edge over the hacks in the racket who were turning out slop just to make a fast buck. Greg’s personal style was more easy-going than Wayne’s, but he too cared about getting the details right. So when Wayne asked him to do a sig again, he did it. And he did it again and again and again and again, however many times it took before he felt he had it and didn’t need to practice it anymore. His goal was not to do one perfect sig, it was to do perfect sigs all the time, to sign a star’s signature with the same careless ease he signed his own name.
After learning DiMaggio, Greg moved on to the last of the Big Three. “With Ted,” he said, “the d and the W would run together. Then Ted would come down on the first loop of the W but not quite finish it and then go into the i. It was like with Joe and Mickey. I did all these letters over and over again until I felt I got it.”
An autograph was a form of personal expression, and yet each one conformed to a pattern. Once Greg discovered this pattern he felt he could lock into a sig and nail it. The o in Dan Marino, for instance, looped around his last name with an expressive curve, accompanied often by his number on the Dolphins, 13. But Dan’s 3 was sharper and less rounded than the way Shaquille O’Neal did the 3 in his number, 34. Whereas Bret Favre’s 4 looked nothing like the numeral; it more resembled the letter f.
Celebrity fakes were part of the mix too, and Greg made sure that his Marilyn was up to the standards of his Joe. The range of his talent was breathtaking, ranging from movie and TV celebs—Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey—to a wildly eclectic music mix: Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Bette Midler, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Randy Travis, Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa and bands such as the Beatles, Eagles, Kiss, Nirvana, and Pink Floyd. Another much-requested category was movie and TV posters, such as Rain Man, A League of Their Own, ER, Friends and Star Trek. People bought them thinking they were cast-signed but really they were just Greg-signed.
Other popular products were astronauts and presidents, usually group photos with combo sigs. The Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon—were a big item. Other favorites were the five presidents—Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush the elder—when they appeared together at the opening of the Nixon Presidential Library.
Based on the variety of signatures they offered and the speed and quality in which they delivered them, the Bray-Marino partnership was tops in a competitive field. But what also set them apart was their high-quality vintage cuts, another money-making idea that Wayne came up with. “He [Bray] was one of the people most responsible in the United States for the proliferation of cuts,” said a Department of Justice attorney involved with the case. “He practically invented cuts and if he didn’t invent them he took them to a whole new level. Before Bray and the Marinos, cuts practically did not exist. After them, cuts were everywhere.”
A “cut” in the language of collectors is a piece of paper with a star’s autograph on it. A vintage cut, then, is paper signed by a dead celebrity or sports star. Bray and Marino flooded the market with cuts—of Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King Jr., Janis Joplin, Bruce Lee, Jackie Onassis, Jimmy Stewart and scads more—because they were so cheap to produce and immensely profitable. (However, their most notorious forgery, that of Mother Teresa, was not a cut; it was on a baseball.) The paper for these cuts came from old books purchased at thrift stores near Greg’s home in Escondido in San Diego County, Calif., where the ring was based. The books they bought predated World War II and sometimes World War I. Typically books published in this era had four or five blank pages in the front and back, which the Marinos tore out. “I did two sigs per page,” said Greg, “never more. Then we cut the page in half with scissors or a razor blade. A cut would be about the size of an old-time 3×5 index card.” He added, “I’d do a hundred in an hour if there were orders. But usually I didn’t need to do that many. Typically I’d maybe do forty or fifty cuts in a day.”
Babe Ruth posed special problems for the gang. Besides the sig itself, the challenge in doing Ruth was in making sure the materials used—pen, ink, baseball—predated his death in 1948 and were authentic to his time. If not, the forgery could be exposed. To avoid this, said Wayne, “I kept Greg in a steady supply of pens from the old days, the ones they actually used.” Nevertheless they still faced the issue of finding legitimate pre-1948 baseballs or, if this was not possible, devising illegitimate ones. Greg laughingly called this “the science of dipping”—the practice of shellacking baseballs in order to disguise their true age so they could be sold as authentic Babe Ruth artifacts.
But even after dipping, something vital about these balls was missing, something that had to be there: the smell of antiquity. Tucked away and forgotten in an attic for generations, only to be uncovered in recent times, baseballs this old must have a certain musty smell attached to them. Only these balls didn’t smell like that; all they smelled of was shellac. “So we’d buy a big bag of mothballs and stick the mothballs in a plastic trash bag with the baseball,” explained “Little Ricky” Mitchell, a close friend of Greg’s and a leader of the ring. “We’d let the ball sit in the bag for a few days or whatever and that would make it smell old.”
Another way they duplicated the smell of age was to forego the mothballs altogether and stick the baseball in a bag of dog food. After a day or two in the bag they’d pull it out and let it cure in the sun a while. When the process was over it was hard to say exactly what the ball smelled like except that it fooled people and that was all that mattered. They sold these fake-signed balls dipped in shellac and aged in Purina for thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars apiece.
Still, Greg couldn’t do Ruth or any other sig unless he first saw a genuine example of it. Seeing how important exemplars were to the growth of the business, Wayne rapidly took this duty over, relentlessly combing through magazines, books, autograph handbooks and sports cards in search of them. When he found one he made a copy and inserted the page into a black three-ring binder. By the time he was done they had compiled seven “black books” with 7,000 exemplars in all—one of the biggest and best exemplar collections in the country, albeit one being used for criminal purposes.
Of course, these fake products all needed the stamp of authenticity. The public insisted on COAs when they bought signed memorabilia based on the faulty premise that pieces of paper could confer legitimacy on their purchases. An East Coast authenticator by the name of Donald Frangipani, whose office was on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., and whose letterhead described him as an “examiner of questioned documents,” issued certs for Bray and
others in the ring. And they liked dealing with Frangipani because when he examined their documents, he seemingly okayed everything he saw. But Bray recruited another man, James DiMaggio, to be the main authenticator for the gang.
But you don’t produce a million counterfeits—the number of forgeries Greg Marino estimated he did in his career—and rip off the American public for $100 million without attracting the attention of the FBI. Beginning in early 1997, the nation’s leading law enforcement agency conducted an intense, all-out undercover investigation that climaxed on October 13, 1999 when four hundred federal agents staged coordinated morning raids across five states on sixty homes and businesses—perhaps the largest one-day takedown in FBI history. On that one day alone they seized $10 million in forged goods and a half-million in cash, busting up the ring and sending many of its members to prison.
“They were,” said one of the agents who busted them, “a bunch of loose-knit guys who were just scraping by. But they became, by far, the largest and most prolific forgery ring ever uncovered by the FBI.”
And their impact on collecting continues to have repercussions today. The FBI undercover agent who investigated the ring has said that a huge number of Marino’s forgeries remains in the hands of collectors today, though they may not realize that what they are holding is fake. The FBI investigated more forgers and counterfeit dealers in phase two of Operation Bullpen, and rumors circulate about a current federal investigation into the hobby. A movie based on Nelson’s book is now under development in Hollywood, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is planning an exhibit on Operation Bullpen and fake memorabilia scheduled for this year.
To read the full, amazing story of Operation Bullpen, see Kevin Nelson’s Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Autographed copies of the book signed by the author are available at www.operationbullpen.com.